- The Land. This place, the setting of the series, is virtually a character in its own right; the whole country is almost sentient. It is a place where good and evil, health and sickness, are as plainly visible as red and green; where every tree and river, every rock and patch of soil, is alive with the organic magic called Earthpower.
- The Council of Lords. This is not merely a collection of wizards, but a kind of church or mandarinate of wizardry, in which the leaders are linked by telepathy and by a common vow to serve the Land.
- Kevin’s Lore. Not just a ‘magic system’, but a very complex and weird set of what you might call magical scriptures. It was encoded by its creator in the Seven Wards, each of which contains the clues that will help you find the next. These Wards range from a locked box full of scrolls to a living being constructed out of pure Earthpower.
- The Giants. These are not ordinary fairy-tale giants, not monsters or villains. They are a race of long-lived seafarers, who love to tell long stories, and to laugh even in the face of tragedy. Their motto is, ‘Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks.’
- Stonedowns and rhadhamaerl. About half the humans in the Land live in Stonedowns, villages where all the tools and utensils of everyday life are made of stone, and manipulated by the stone-lore called rhadhamaerl. Even the fires are fuelled by a magical stone called graveling.
- Woodhelvens and lillianrill. A Woodhelven is a village built in the branches of a single giant tree. As the Stonedownors use stone for every ordinary purpose, the Woodhelvennin use wood. They even have wooden knives, which work because of the lillianrill magic that awakens the Earthpower in the wood.
- Lord Foul the Despiser. The principal villain of the piece, Lord Foul is trapped in the Land, and wants to destroy it so that he can escape. Failing that, he seeks to torment the Land’s people so horribly that they will destroy it themselves, just to put him out of their misery. He hates every form of life and existence, possibly including his own, and is very good at laying the kind of double-bind trap that TV Tropes calls a ‘Xanatos Gambit’.
- The Ravers. These three malevolent spirits have no bodies of their own, but work their will by possessing others. They can flit from host to host, using their stolen bodies to kill, destroy, and wreak havoc. The people of the Land call them by (Hebrew) names that refer to different aspects of Hell, but the Ravers name themselves by the (Sanskrit) words for different forms of enlightenment.
- Ur-viles and Waynhim. These two strange races were created by a mysterious people known as the Demondim. They are outside the Law, since they were constructed, not born; their DNA, so to speak, is entirely artificial. The ur-viles are black, eyeless, and sorcerous, and serve Lord Foul because he gives them lore and genetic material to continue the Demondim breeding program. The grey Waynhim have renounced all that, and devote their lives to serving the Land in their own peculiar way.
- The Staff of Law. This rune-carved staff both embodies and controls the laws that govern the Earthpower. It has, roughly, the power of life, death, and transformation over anything that exists by Law – that is, anything that has its own determinate nature. (Later on in the series, the Staff is destroyed, and Very Bad Things Happen.)
- The Illearth Stone. A source of almost infinite power, the Stone warps and diseases everything it touches. It is a kind of Instant Mordor in a can.
- White gold. This metal, not found in the Land, contains ‘the wild magic that destroys Peace’. It is right outside of the Law; it is ‘closed’ to the second sight of the Land’s people, so that they cannot perceive it as either good or ill, but only as an enigma.
Read about what makes Ozamataz possible in ‘Legosity’.
According to local legend, one of the first tourists to visit Calgary (then a Northwest Mounted Police fort with a few civilian outbuildings) was an Englishman of energetic habits but not, it seems, with any wide experience of the world. One morning, having rested from the rigours of his journey, he decided to take his morning constitutional by walking to the Rocky Mountains and back. In those days you could see the mountains easily from the N.W.M.P. fort, small but sharp and clear on the western horizon. In England, of course, nothing looks sharp and clear more than a few miles away. In that mild and humid air, every distant object is more or less obscured and coloured by haze: minor English poets can always eke out their verses with facile rubbish about ‘blue remembered hills’. In the dry cold highlands of Alberta, there is no such haze; objects on the horizon, on a sunny day, are very nearly as clear as those immediately at hand. But our English tourist knew nothing of this, and set out with the idea of visiting the mountains and getting back to the fort in time for breakfast. Five or six miles out, the Englishman, who must already have been rather footsore and perplexed, clambered up the long ridge that would later be called Signal Hill. Cresting the ridge, he would have been appalled to discover a wide plain sloping gently down for several miles before him. Beyond that rose the first tumbled range of the true foothills, towards which, disappointed but not daunted, he plodded on. Behind that range is the Kananaskis valley, and then the last range of foothills before the beginning of the actual mountains — some fifty miles west of Fort Calgary as the crow flies. Several days later, a searching party found the Englishman and brought him back to the fort to recuperate. Something rather similar happens to writers who visit Elfland; even today, when the map of that country has been scribbled over with marked trails and motorways, the lesson of distance is one that every traveller must discover for himself. It is notoriously a place where journeys take longer than expected: short stories turn into novels, and novels turn into trilogies, and trilogies turn into the high felony that has sometimes been called ‘Aggravated Trilogy’ in the statute-books of the critics. This has been going on as long as people have been writing deliberate works of fantasy, yet somehow the experience of it comes as a complete surprise to each new victim. Tolkien himself was one of the early victims, so that for many years, the kind of critics who had never been to Elfland, and prided themselves on not knowing the place, would point sneeringly at the mere length of The Lord of the Rings as if that alone were sufficient proof that it was egregiously padded. For some reason or other, they did not say the same thing about Anthony Adverse or War and Peace, both of which are much the same length, nor even about the 4,215 back-breaking pages of A la recherche du temps perdu. There is some padding in the earlier parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, to be sure; some of the verses could be cut, and some of the ‘hobbit-talk’, and probably the whole business of Tom Bombadil; but the second and third volumes are tightly plotted and could hardly be reduced without fatal damage to the story. And yet the padding in those early chapters is there; there was more of it in the first few drafts; and strange to say, Tolkien put it in deliberately. The unexpected success of The Hobbit led his publisher (and readers) to clamour for ‘more about Hobbits’; he complied only reluctantly and with misgivings. Two months after beginning ‘the new Hobbit’, he wrote to C. A. Furth:
The Hobbit sequel is still where it was, and I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed. Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favourite ‘motifs’ and characters on the original ‘Hobbit’.With no clear idea what the sequel should be about or where it was going, Tolkien threw in all sorts of odd ingredients. He knew very well that he was making stone soup, and was not about to reject any idea that would help him keep the story moving and pad it out to a suitable length. Tom Bombadil had first appeared in the Oxford Magazine, unconnected with Hobbits and Middle-earth; but he could be made to fit, so into the pot he went. Then there were Barrow-wights and Black Riders and other adventures by the way, and the inn at Bree (a spontaneous invention), where Tolkien found a mysterious Hobbit with wooden shoes, nicknamed ‘Trotter’: the first faint origin of the character that would eventually be revealed as Aragorn. The soup was already getting rather full of herbs and seasonings, but it still needed meat — a principal ingredient to supply the stock and unite all the other things into a harmonious whole. One day, the ‘meat’ came to Tolkien in a flash of insight. Bilbo’s magic ring was not just a stock fairy-tale ring of invisibility; it was the ring, the One Ring that ruled all the others, and Sauron (who had already appeared in several unpublished stories) was trying desperately to find it. At the Council of Elrond, which seems to have been a process of discovery and decision for the author as much as for the characters, it came out (after several drafts) that the only way to defeat Sauron was to destroy the Ring. That was the unifying device Tolkien needed — the meat for the soup — and from that moment, it was stone soup no longer. But he had already dragged in so many ideas and characters and complications that it could not all be worked out quickly. Up to this point Tolkien, like the Englishman in our local legend, had only been climbing the first high ridge beyond the fort, in the mistaken belief that the mountains were immediately beyond it. With the discovery of the One Ring, he saw for the first time a wide stretch of country that he had to traverse before reaching the true foothills; and disappointed but not daunted, he plodded on. Five years after he began ‘the new Hobbit’, he informed Stanley Unwin with naive and touching faith:
It is now approaching completion. I hope to get a little free time this vacation, and might hope to finish it off early next year. . . . It has reached Chapter XXXI and will require at least six more to finish.In fact Chapter XXXI was ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ — Book III, chapter 9 in the published epic; just about halfway through The Two Towers. There were in fact another thirty-one chapters to go. Since Rohan and Gondor, the War of the Ring, and Gollum (not yet ‘tamed’) had already been introduced to the tale, it is hard to imagine how Tolkien could have thought that he would finish it all in just six. But there was Mount Doom — so clear, so tantalizingly close! He could not accept, could not perhaps even imagine, that it would take seven more years of struggle and revision before he brought the story to its conclusion. He had set out to take a morning constitutional, and ended by making the journey of a lifetime. The Lord of the Rings has been the great exemplar (and fatal temptation) of every writer of epic fantasy since; and we might suppose that subsequent writers in the field would have learnt this along with its other lessons. We would be disappointed. One writer after another has set out to write a long-form fantasy tale, and grossly underestimated the size of the task and the length of the finished work. In one of his moments of wisdom, David Eddings observed that a man who has never walked a mile on his own legs has no clear idea how far a mile is. It seems that a writer who has never written a trilogy has no clear idea what a trilogy is, either. To judge how long a story will have to be, it appears, you have to have personal experience at writing stories of that size; and of course no one starts out with such experience. In short stories and ordinary novels, this does not pose a problem. The novice writer has to finish his stories before he can hope to sell them; and with a finished text, a publisher always knows how far apart to put the covers of the book. But in fantasy especially, writers routinely sign publishing contracts for long series when only the first volume (or none at all) has been completed. The rest of the series is a gigantic promissory note, and many a writer has found himself bankrupted by the compound interest on his own projected tale. Tad Williams is one of these. His first long epic, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was sold to DAW Books as a trilogy, and duly published as such. The Dragonbone Chair is a hefty book, but it delivers exactly what Williams and his publisher called for — the first third of the story, as projected at the time. The Stone of Farewell is much the same size; but it becomes increasingly apparent by the end of that book that the story is not two-thirds done. To Green Angel Tower, as a result, is a monster. DAW was just able to publish it in hardcover as a single volume of over 1,000 pages, though it had to be set in smaller type to fit in one binding. It would have been about 1,600 pages in paperback, which is considerably more than a mass-market binding can hold together. So DAW was reduced to the rather ludicrous expedient of releasing the paperback as a two-volume volume — To Green Angel Tower, Part 1 and To Green Angel Tower, Part 2. Wiser heads might have surrendered to the inevitable a little sooner and with better grace, and divided the oversized third volume in two from the outset. Then at least each volume would have had its own title, instead of the third and fourth books sharing one title between them. Williams and DAW did just that with his next series, Otherland, which also proved too long for the originally projected three books. His recent Shadowmarch series repeats the procedure. Indeed, it would not be unfair to describe Tad Williams as a professional writer of four-volume trilogies. The real master criminals of Aggravated Trilogy, however, were yet to come. The late Robert Jordan originally planned The Wheel of Time as a tightly-plotted six-book series, which, even so, would have been the largest epic fantasy yet conceived and written as a single story. In the event, Jordan died after finishing eleven books (plus a prequel), leaving notes for the twelfth and last; and that book turned out to be so long that it had to be divided into three. The result, after nearly thirty years’ work by two authors, was a sheer monstrosity, a soap opera sprawling over fifteen fat volumes, to a total length of more than four million words. Those four million words, I am afraid, contain a great deal of deliberate padding. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, that Jordan was asked by his publisher, Tom Doherty, and his editor/wife, Harriet McDougal, to stretch the series out to more volumes and so exploit its huge commercial success. Certainly a lot of his readers felt exploited. Customers’ reviews of the middle volumes on Amazon.com make amusing reading. From about the fifth volume on, there begin to be large numbers of one-star reviews, increasingly strident and despondent, complaining that the story is being drawn out with pointless detail and needlessly elaborated subplots, and that each book brings the main plot no closer to a conclusion. There are endless descriptions of characters’ clothing, and where the clothing was made, and by whom, and when; and endless scenes of the hero’s various mistresses conspiring together, or against one another, and being spanked, a particular Jordan specialty; and of subordinate characters making tea, drinking tea, gossiping over tea, and in at least one case, being poisoned by tea. Adam Roberts, in his wittily scathing review of the series, has described the cumulative effect as ‘epic Miss Marple’. By the eighth book, these readers are saying openly that they have been swindled, that they are swearing off Jordan and will not waste any more of their money on a series that will evidently never end. Yet many of the same people returned to the series, as the dog returns to his vomit, only to make the same complaints about volumes nine, ten, and eleven. Sad to say, the news of Jordan’s death, and the hiring of Brandon Sanderson to finish the series, actually gave these long-suffering customers a new feeling of hope — a feeling that the tale actually would be finished, that at long last Doherty and McDougal would bid its swelling expanse be stayed and swell no further. The first book under Sanderson’s byline did not much encourage this hope. The Gathering Storm was a fine title for the first volume in Churchill’s monumental history of the Second World War; it is rather less fine as the title of the twelfth volume in a series. One might reasonably expect that the storm would be well and truly gathered by then. Since then, the crown, if we may call it that, has passed on to George R. R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire was always intended to be a large work, but it, too, has grown in the telling. With more than the usual effrontery, Martin dealt with the proliferation of subplots and the slowing of forward momentum simply by fission: he divided the enormous cast of viewpoint characters into two sets, and dealt with them alternately, so that the fourth and fifth books in the series cover the same span of time in different parts of the map. Whether he will get a grip on the reins again in the remaining volumes, or let the horse have its head and go galloping off in all directions for the rest of his days, is still an open question. I have met Mr. Martin once or twice, and I met Robert Jordan once, and in each case I had the strong impression that I was not talking to a well person. If Martin were to follow Jordan’s descent into the void, and die with his magnum opus still unfinished, I would be saddened but not, I fear, surprised. At present he plans to finish the series in seven books, a plan, he says, that is firm ‘until I decide not to be firm’. Perhaps it will be his great good fortune to die in harness at the age of 105, still scribbling away at the twenty-fourth and final (we mean it this time) book of the series. In less flagrant cases, the growth can be contained short of metastasis; that is, without subdividing the story into more books. J. K. Rowling handled the Harry Potter series in this way. The first three books are neat little novels of the size that publishers used to prefer for juvenile books. After that, Rowling got on more slowly; the drafts grew longer, and because readers by the million were clamouring for each successive book, her publishers developed a distressing habit of wrestling the first draft out of her grip as soon as it was finished and publishing it more or less unedited. The later books would have benefited a good deal from judicious cutting; but the publishers calculated (quite correctly) that they would sell in boatloads without it, and did not propose to delay the releases for editorial work that was not commercially necessary. As a result, the Harry Potter books make a very odd-looking set on a shelf: three thin books followed by four increasingly fat ones. This posed a severe puzzle for the filmmakers, who finally had to deal with the sprawl of The Deathly Hallows by dividing it into two films: the Tad Williams method again. The cumulative effect of all this is to make it seem that epic fantasy writers are by nature sprawling, slovenly, and self-indulgent. Some are, no doubt, but most are defeated by the nature of the medium — and of human experience. You set out to write an epic, and figure out what the story will be about, and who the heroes are, and what kinds of places you want to visit along the way; and you divide your outline into roughly equal thirds, and expect to write a trilogy. But the story has an exasperating way of growing bigger as you go along. The mountain that you chose for your destination turns out to be twice the size you originally thought, and consequently, twice as far away; and having travelled two-thirds of the distance you planned for, you find you are only one-third of the way there. Then, if your series has been a commercial success so far, you may find your publisher happily playing along, encouraging you to spin it out into as many books as they can profitably sell. If not, you are liable to be dropped in mid-series and never reach the destination at all. Once you have completed one of these epic journeys, you will know in your muscles and your bones how long the journey is, and how much the real distance exceeds the apparent distance; and the next time you make such a journey, you can go forewarned. So Tad Williams discovered that what looked (to him) like three volumes would reliably turn out to be four, and he has learnt to pack an extra lunch. But if you set out on a journey the size of Jordan’s, you may not live long enough to profit by the lesson. The only person who knows in his bones how a six-book journey turns into fifteen is Jordan, and his bones are lying in the graveyard and will not make any more journeys now. I do not know of any general solution to this problem; perhaps no general solution is possible. The tragedy of life, they say, is that it takes a whole lifetime to learn how to live. That tragedy is doubled for travellers in Elfland: the elves are immortal, but the travellers are not. And just as, in the old tales, a mortal man could spend one night with the elves to find that a hundred years had passed in the outside world, a fantasy writer can easily spend the best years of his working life covering a few fleeting days in the history of his invented world. If there is a solution, it will demand a quality that our ancestors valued highly, but that we have almost forgotten: they used to call it wisdom. It is truly said that fools learn by experience; wise men learn by watching fools — and by taking to heart the rules and maxims that other wise men have distilled from the experience of fools. Perhaps there is some rule or maxim that a wise man could devise to solve the paradox of epic fantasy, as there is (nowadays) a rule for solving the rather similar paradox of motion, first presented by Zeno of Elea. One form of Zeno’s paradox explains that it is impossible, from any starting-point A, to reach a fixed destination Ω. To get there, you first have to get to point B, halfway between A and Ω. But then you have to get to point C, which is halfway between B and Ω; and so on. By the time you reach point Y, which is halfway between X and Ω, you will be heartily cursing the name of Zeno and wishing you had never set out on such an impossible journey. Or if your name is Newton or Leibniz, you will notice that each stage of the journey takes only half as long as the last, until you are adding up an infinite number of infinitesimals. Then you will pause to catch your breath and invent calculus, add up all the infinitesimals, and reach Ω in a finite time. The wisdom that could solve the paradox of epic fantasy may likewise be a matter of mathematics. What we want is a formula that will tell us, as a general rule, how much longer the actual story is likely to be compared to the outlined or projected story. Tad Williams worked out a solution for his own special case: if it looks like three books, it will actually take four. Extrapolating this to cover other situations is the tricky part, and that problem has not yet been solved. Of course, even with a general solution, we would still need the wisdom and the will to do what it prescribes. That is, I think, largely a matter of courage: it means having the guts to wrap up a successful series while the readers are still calling for more, instead of spinning it out to greater and greater lengths for easy profit. It means trusting our talent and our skill — knowing that if we can finish this one tale, the Muse will not desert us; there will be other tales to tell, and if we choose the best one available, our audience will follow us there. Elfland is large, and those who have once visited it nearly always want to return. We need to put our trust in that; and we need the wisdom to measure our journeys in proportion to our writing lives. As long as writers lack that wisdom and that trust, they are likely to go on making journeys that never seem to reach their destinations, but merely peter out, defeated by the paradox of Zeno’s mountains.
As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at. It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. Most of what I could say about this has been said with magnificent wit and force in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, which I referred to earlier. The language of fantasy should be appropriate to fantasy; the speech of heroes should be heroic; the sound of the lame excuse should not be heard in that land. This is the law and the prophets: all else is gloss. But I should like to dwell upon the gloss awhile, as the fantasy field has changed enormously since ‘Poughkeepsie’ was published, and by no means all for the better. After some preliminary rumblings, the field of fantasy became a real commercial genre very suddenly. I have written about the Fantasy Big Bang of 1977, when the field as we know it emerged full-grown, swinging a sword and swashing a buckler, from the dog-eared notebooks of the late J. R. R. Tolkien. This is an exaggeration, but not a very gross one. Besides The Silmarillion, that year marked the appearance of three first novels and a film that permanently changed the commercial and critical climate in fantasy publishing. It also marked the official annexation of Elfland by Poughkeepsie, though the elves have been fighting a valiant rearguard action in the remoter parts of the country. In short, 1977 was when Fantasyland opened for business at its present location. And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home. In Northrop Frye’s taxonomy, as propounded in Anatomy of Criticism, the plots and characters of fantasy normally occupy the levels of Romance and High Mimesis, with occasional excursions into Myth. But from 1977 on, it became usual to write their stories, and still worse their dialogue, in the ordinary novelistic language of Low Mimesis and Irony. The strain is too much for the structure to bear. Where Aragorn and Gandalf, or Eddison’s four Lords of Demonland, spoke like heroes and behaved accordingly, too many of their successors come across as over-aged adolescents playing at knights and dragons. It is no calumny to say that the tone of the average commercial fantasy novel nowadays is not much above the tone of the average Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This is no accident, for D&D players are the most identifiable and exploitable demographic for fantasy publishers. I have played a lot of D&D in my time, as it happens, and what I observe time and again is players who Just Don’t Get It. They are ostensibly playing heroes, or at least quasi-heroic adventurers, but they give these characters a kind of life that betrays their utter unfamiliarity with either heroism or adventure. Some time ago, I dabbled in Third Edition D&D after an absence of many years. One party in which I participated was, or rather played, a group of irregulars in the service of a baron whose domain was beset by ogres, pirates, and assorted menaces from the omnium gatherum of the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master was an ex-serviceman, familiar with the bureaucratic organization of modern armies, and utterly ignorant of the deeply personal and emotional loyalties that characterized the feudal system. Though we were, sword for sword, the most valuable retainers the baron had, we were never actually permitted to meet him, and seldom even saw the captain of his men-at-arms. We were dealt with summarily by a mere lieutenant, briefed, debriefed, conferred with in map-rooms, and generally treated with less courtesy and ceremony than a mediaeval king would have shown to the merest beggar. Kings touched commoners for the king’s evil, but our lord the baron did not touch commoners at all. Corporate Poughkeepsie, with its disgusting rudeness and indifference, and the layers of insulation built up to protect every person of importance or even self-importance from the importunities of the public, was in full possession of an ostensible fortress of Elfland. All this showed in our DM’s use of language, which I shall mercifully spare you; and the like attitude, with much less excuse, shows daily in the pages of modern commercial fantasy. At about this point in her argument, Ms. Le Guin gave some more or less random examples of dialogue in great works of fantasy, and one less great. I should like to offer some beginnings, since that is where the modern, groomed, workshopped author is taught to display his very finest wares:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth. ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’This is Tolkien’s version of Poughkeepsie, but already in the distance we can hear the horns of Elfland tuning for their first fanfare. The events described are entirely pedestrian, a birthday party and some small-town gossip, but they are fraught with significance. In a way, the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is merely the rigorous and complete exploration of the ‘trouble’ that came from Bilbo’s ‘unfair’ lease of youth and riches. Note that Tolkien, whose literary influences were nearly all dead before 1900, is not at all afraid to begin with sixty years of backstory, pithily summarized, or to burden the reader with récit instead of a cinematic ‘teaser’. This is how such things were normally done in the days when literature was not deformed by the perceived need (and impossible desire) to compete with television on television’s home ground. I believe that we shall yet see a return of the novelistic novel, as opposed to the novel that tries to be a faithful replica of an unmade movie. But that is not, generally speaking, what we are getting at present:
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.That is the opening paragraph of The Sword of Shannara, one of the Big Bang fantasies of 1977. Or rather, it is part of the opening paragraph, for we are treated to several more lines of visual description of the mysterious Mr. Ohmsford. Although Brooks’s first novel has been mercilessly derided as a mere pastiche of The Lord of the Rings, it is in fact something very much more (and less): a translation of LOTR from epic English into modern pedestrian novelese. It is the Fantasyland version of Tolkien. See how the story opens with an attempt at cinematic description. Everything is seen through the camera eye, beginning with a long establishing shot of the countryside, then closing in on the weary figure trudging through the landscape, ending with an extreme closeup focused tightly on the eyes. It is true that everything is seen as through a gel filter, darkly, for Brooks’s descriptive powers are not great, and if we form a vivid image of a countryside from these vague cues, it redounds to our credit and not his. ‘Touching the corners of the land’ is strictly meaningless, as nasty a bit of mock-poetic trumpery as you could hope to find among the sham beams of a Tudor pub in Peoria. The bit about the restless energy revealed by Flick’s wide gray eyes is simply a cheat, and a cheat of a particular kind that I should like to discuss in more detail. For this is the very essence of the Fantasyland style: to swaddle the reader in visual description, engaging her mind (I assume a female reader for convenience’ sake, as the writer I am dissecting is male) in the mild trance state most conducive to escapist reading, while communicating the real gist of the matter in windy abstractions. Nobody could possibly see restless energy burning in a man’s eyes as he trudges wearily down a hillside trail, even if there were somebody there to look for it. (There is not; Flick is alone at this point, except for the omnipresent camera eye.) What we have is a purely subjective and fanciful opinion about Flick’s character, passed off as physical description and therefore as fact. If a character formed such an impression of Flick’s eyes, the reader would know where she stands. She would know it was an opinion, no more reliable or well-informed than the person who made it, and from this she could learn not only about Flick but about his observer, and the relationship between them. As it stands, she learns only that Terry Brooks wants her to think of Flick as a dynamo of hidden energies, without showing him doing anything remotely energetic, let alone dynamic. Le Guin observed that a fantasy writer’s true quality shows best in his dialogue. It takes three full pages of Flick’s solo trudgery before we come to the first line of dialogue in the story:
The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being. With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long, thin dagger at his waist. Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly. ‘Wait a moment, friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.’When two strangers cross paths in a wood, and one wishes to ask the other for directions, he does not customarily introduce himself by sneaking up within arm’s length and doing his best impression of a Black Rider. No indeed: accosting the other man from a distance and asking the way to Poughkeepsie is the generally accepted thing. It’s a fake scare, followed by fake reassurance. Again we have the cloudy attempts at description (‘great, black stone’), merely to give the author a plausible defence against the charge of ‘telling, not showing’. And again the meat of the matter, such as it is, is told and not shown, an opinion enforced by pure auctorial fiat. ‘A strong, yet reassuring voice’ could sound like anything. We are told that Flick was reassured by it, but we really have no idea why. By the bye, at this point, four pages into The Sword of Shannara, we have got considerably less distance with the story than Tolkien took us with the three short paragraphs that begin The Lord of the Rings. The Fantasyland writer is nothing if not verbose. Another of the Big Bang fantasies was Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock. It is difficult today to believe that Hancock’s overgrown fairytale was highly acclaimed in its day and sold over a million copies. It is very much a book of the Seventies, and you can hear deliberate echoes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the opening:
On the morning of his leaving, he erased all his tracks from that part of heaven, carefully stacked new star branches in a neat pile behind the entrance in the dark mouth of the universe, and sadly began the thousand-year trip down the side of the sky that closely resembled a large mountain. If you looked at it that way. If you didn’t, it might seem very much like walking out your own front door and down the steps.It is an accomplishment, I suppose, to be both twee and portentous at the same time, but that combination is Hancock’s speciality. Our unnamed character is a Bear, the Bear in fact, a stock anthropomorphic fairytale Bear of the sort that has been familiar to everyone since Robert Southey seeded Elfland with three of the species; but he is also the reincarnation of an ancient hero. So we are told in the subsequent pages, though we never learn just what he did that was so heroic that it would still be remembered in the twilight of the ages. Again we see this curious tendency to show trivialities and baldly tell (or even omit) essentials. In this case, it is overlaid with a New Age mystical conceit, for the Bear’s journey is, of course, his reincarnation to fight the good fight once more. The tone is more juvenile than that of Shannara, but the cinematic pretensions and windy vagueness are much the same. Now, I do not mean to give the impression that a cinematic, novelistic technique (derived, by the way, from Hemingway’s successful experiment referred to earlier) is always inappropriate for fantasy. Special circumstances can justify it, as in the third of the Big Bang novels:
She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way. The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!” Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own admission, is a notorious over-writer, but there are no wasted words here. Nothing is spent on the setting, beyond the mention of the store and sidewalk; we recognize this as a street zoned commercial, part of our own world. We have immediate action, immediate conflict, and are faced at once with an urgent question. Why is Thomas Covenant subjected to such execration merely for walking down the street? What ought he to be ashamed of? Just as Bilbo’s neighbours adumbrated the whole plot of LOTR in a sneering line of dialogue, the woman from the store (whom we never see again) sets up the essential conflict that drives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It is a powerful and engaging opening, though Covenant soon squanders the capital of sympathy that his author laid in for him. The action is described cinematically, if you like, but it is action and not impressionistic claptrap about the countryside. Like Tolkien, unlike Brooks and Hancock, Donaldson puts his subjective judgements where they properly belong, in the minds and mouths of characters who are capable of making those judgements inside the story. The narrator does not intrude at all. But this exception, after all, works because Thomas Covenant really is a man from Poughkeepsie, or somewhere distressingly like it. The apparatus of the twentieth-century novel is appropriate to his tale, because he is a twentieth-century man, and his tale is about the head-on collision between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Donaldson has described the Covenant books as a kind of inverse of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s masterpiece is the tale of how King Arthur was destroyed by a world full of petty and self-seeking men; Donaldson’s debut is about a petty and self-seeking man who finds redemption in a world full of King Arthurs. The tone is often ironic, in Frye’s usage of the term, because Covenant is an ironic hero. He speaks fluent Poughkeepsie, and the characters of the Land to which he is transported speak a highly idiosyncratic dialect pregnant with the unmistakable tones of Elfland. One more example, and I shall leave the matter alone. This is not from the Big Bang, but from the monstrously long Fantasyland novel that fully assimilated and imitated all its predecessors. All the yardwork and busywork, all the Extruded Book Product from the Old Baloney Factory, is summed up in this one encyclopaedic tale, and the beginning strikes the note with uncanny accuracy:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow. Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.This is Fantasyland in a nutshell. We have the cod philosophizing of Hancock, perhaps improved upon, certainly intensified, by the Liberal Application of Capital Letters. We have the blatant cribs from Tolkien, the Third Age and the Misty Mountains. We have a panoramic camera shot of some very unsatisfactory and out-of-focus scenery, the burden of which is simply the screenwriter’s ‘Exterior Fantasyland, day’. We do not yet, it is true, have any auctorial opinions about Rand al’Thor fobbed off on us as physical description, but we may confidently guess that we will not be deprived of that amenity for long. Robert Jordan has rounded up all the usual suspects, and they all do exactly the Poughkeepsian duty that every right-thinking reader has learnt to expect. And he has done it without getting us any distance at all with the story. It takes him a full page to tell us that Rand’s cloak is flapping in the wind. That may not be good writing, but at least it is an authentic sample of the long, slow slog to come. If nothing else, we can praise Jordan for truth in advertising. He has not only clipped Pegasus’ wings, but broken his legs as well, and will spend the next ten thousand pages teaching him to crawl. It would be so unacceptably Elflandish to let him soar.
It’s one thing to beat a dead horse. It’s another thing to marry it.
—Wendy S. Delmater, publisher & editor of Abyss & Apex
If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet. There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. One is to name people and places with the kind of jumble one might get by rolling Perquackey dice. This will do for a joke, or for a private diversion like a role-playing game: a friend of mine once did yeoman service with a character unfortunately named Hogheospox. But it is unkind to inflict such names on the reading public; especially your public. The opposite error is the perfectly mundane name with a coat of bad paint. I am referring to the practice, which perhaps originated in cheesy Gothic romances but is most firmly established in bad fantasy, of taking familiar or (God help us) transiently fashionable names, changing a couple of letters, sticking in an apostrophe or two, and passing them off as something wild and exotic. It never works. You cannot pass off pinchbeck as fairy-gold, especially to the fairies. Women writers seem especially prone to this fault — Anne McCaffrey and Katharine Kurtz, with their hordes of imitators, come quickest to mind — which is not surprising, since this is also one of the stock methods of coming up with ‘different’ first names for girl children. P.G. Wodehouse hit it exactly in ‘The Spot of Art’:
‘You sit there and tell me you haven’t enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys? Listen, Bertie,’ said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, ‘I’m an older woman than you are — well, you know what I mean — and I can tell you a thing or two. And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys.’Of course, there are male offenders as well, and they make up in volume of prose whatever they lack in numbers. Robert Jordan’s names are cringingly awful. Take Rand al’Thor: evidently the name of a Dutchman who was named after a Norse god by Arabs, if internal evidence is anything to go by. Trollocs is a bad enough word, reminding one irresistibly of trollops as well as troll-orcs, but nothing compared to the ghastly names of their tribes: Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’ghael, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon. A man who can perpetrate a travesty like that, and deliberately put it into print, should not have the freedom of the streets. He embarrasses the human race by ass’hoh’shieh’shun. But let us give this dha’vol his dh’ue. Jordan may be the worst offender in bulk, but it is Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.) Gary Gygax’s city of Stoink is a dismally close second. George R. R. Martin, though a much better writer than Brooks or Jordan, comes perilously close to the Gwladys standard here and there in A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of his names (Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya) are quite effective, if over-freighted with the letter Y. But they sort very ill with the not-quite-English names like Eddard and Samwell, and those in turn clash just perceptibly with straight English names like Robert and Jon. One gets the feeling that Martin knows what he is trying to do, but hasn’t a sufficiently developed ear to tell when he has done it. His names go in and out of tune; or rather, they seem to be playing about three different tunes at once, and the tunes don’t harmonize. In all of sf and fantasy, there have been three authors who perfectly mastered the delicate art of nomenclature: Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, and Mervyn Peake. Tolkien, of course, worked for decades at his invented languages, and the names he coined in those languages are both euphonious (unless he intended them not to be, like ‘lovely Lugbúrz’) and authentic. But he was also deeply versed in English names, both of people and places, a study that would well reward many writers who do not trouble themselves to undertake it. As for Smith and Peake, between them they cornered the market in Gothic bizarreries, which happened to perfectly suit the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. It is perfectly correct that Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality should keep a cat-descended mistress called C’Mell. The C stands for Cat, you see; it is a natural contraction, like the one you occasionally used to see for Scottish names — MacLeod reduced to M’Leod, as it is in one of Kipling’s stories. What’s more, Smith actually unbends far enough to explain this. The average perpetrator of Aggravated Apostrophe couldn’t explain why she sticks pothooks in the middle of words, not to save her life, her soul, and her poetic licence. Or at any rate, she doesn’t bother. Likewise, it is only right and just that the nemesis of Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, should be called Steerpike, and that he should apprentice for a time under an old medico by the name of Prunesquallor. (It is still more right and just that the medico should have a ghastly sister named Irma Prunesquallor.) These names are English, or something near it, but so cleanly transported out of the normal conventions of English naming that they take on some of the glamour of names like Aragorn and Lúthien. And unlike Tolkien’s names, it is possible to work out something of their meanings, or at least associations, without an unobtainable dictionary of an imaginary language. This is a great timesaver. An honourable mention — I owe this observation to my friend John C. Wright — should go to David Lindsay, for some of the names in his infinitely strange novel, Voyage to Arcturus. Despite the name and the ostensible setting, this book really belongs to the genre of fictionalized philosophical declamations, like Atlas Shrugged, rather than science fiction or fantasy as such; which is one of the reasons why it has gone out of vogue, and (frequently) out of print. But Lindsay must have been a considerable influence on Smith and Peake, with his protagonist Maskull, and characters with names like Krag and Nightspore. These names are not all euphonious and certainly not all of one linguistic type, but they are striking and evocative, and that makes up for some of their deficiencies. Lindsay’s onomastic triumphs, known to thousands who have never read any of his books, are jale and ulfire, the two primary colours that one sees in the Arcturian sunlight, but never on earth. Those names are so suggestive that I can almost imagine what they look like. Jale, to me, suggests a colour between red and green that is nevertheless not yellow; pale like milky jade (for all I know, the name may be a portmanteau of jade and pale), but as bright and vivid as any colour you can see through a prism. (I have read that women with the recessive gene for colour-blindness sometimes report seeing such a red-green colour, but I don’t know what it looks like to them.) Ulfire suggests a torridly brilliant colour somewhere beyond violet, which would affect the human eye somewhat like the purplish-white of the very hottest lightning. Lindsay describes ulfire as ‘wild and painful’, and jale as ‘dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous’. I can well imagine those descriptions fitting with colours of the sort I have described, though I came up with those impressions from the words alone, without ever having read any part of the book. The names are just that magnificently evocative. Each method has much to recommend it, but for a writer in a hurry, with middling linguistic gifts, I would recommend leaning towards the Smith-Peake school. Inventing languages, like writing archaic English (or, as Le Guin says, bicycling and computer programming), is one of those things you have got to know how to do before you can do it. Few fantasy writers are inclined to take this advice, alas; and so the ghraem’lans, I fear, will be with us for a long time to come.